Smith, a Roan Mountain native, was a science teacher for more than 20 years in Avery and Mitchell counties in North Carolina before complications from rheumatoid arthritis caused her to lose most of her vision about eight years ago. She had to retire from teaching, and she entered a period of being terrified of everything and never wanting to leave her home.
“It’s one thing to lose your sight but you lose so much of your independence,” she said. “You feel like your life is over. You think, ‘Well, what do I do now? I can’t even operate the coffee maker, I can’t even cook.’
“There’s no handbook for going blind. Nobody focuses on what happens to your life.”
Smith described those years of her life as a period of grieving — she had to relearn how to live her life without most of her sight, and that prospect was daunting. Smith still has some vision, but is legally blind, even people approaching her at the grocery store could be scary. Doctors told her that it’s easier for people who are born blind than for those who lose their sight.
But something changed for Smith.
“I just thought, ‘I have to get out there and do something, and I have to stop being afraid of messing up or worrying what people think of me.’”
A doctor pointed her to The Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired, an Illinois-based education organization that offers online classes from cooking to marketing to business. The classes are free for those who have lost most or all of their vision, and are available online or by mail.
Hadley has been remotely helping blind people since 1920 — almost 100 years ago, the institute began offering educational courses by mail. Today, more than 10,000 students across the country and world use Hadley to learn anything from independent living to film and literature studies.
Originally, Smith chose classes so she could begin weaving her life together. She took classes like cooking, Braille and even makeup tutorials. Smith said her confidence began to grow, and she found herself doing something she never thought she’d do – taking business classes.
She was able to mold a soap-making hobby into a flourishing natural candle, netting awards for her work as a beginning entrepreneur along the way. What began as Smith making 15 candles per day in her kitchen as a hobby has transformed into a full, blind-friendly studio in her home and a business alongside of support and encouragement through a community of other blind business owners.
“What’s really helped is knowing there are other blind people who have made it who are entrepreneurs who have been through it and are successful business owners,” Smith said.
Smith’s candles are all-natural, hand-poured and each one carries a little bit of her home with botanicals harvested in Appalachia. Each candle melts into a special lotion that can be used as skincare treatment.
Smith sometimes sells her wares at festivals, like the Unicoi Apple Festival, but a sure-fire way to try her products is through her website, foragecandle.com.
“My fear is there are so many people sitting at home like me who have lost their vision and are sitting at home and they don’t know about Hadley,” Smith said.